China Analysis: People’s Congress to vote on March 11 to abolish presidential term limits; military expansion and cyber monitoring expected to increase
• The National People’s Conference (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China will vote on whether or not amend the constitution to abolish presidential term limits on March 11.
• China is expanding its military and cyber posturing under President Xi Jinping, which is projected to continue under his extended rule.
• The move will most likely be accepted by the US, although tensions will continue in contested areas.
• Travel to China may continue at this time while adhering to standard security protocols given the latent threat of militancy and crime.
• Constitutional amendments abolishing term limits and removing the maximum age for government officials, currently capped at 68, will be voted on by the The National People’s Conference (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China on March 11. The amendments are widely expected to pass.
• US President Donald Trump reportedly joked about the constitutional changes during a private fundraiser on March 4, praising President Xi for the move. The Taiwan Travel Act was passed by both houses of US Congress by late February, paving the way for closer US-Taiwan ties, although President Trump has not signed it into law as of publication.
• On October 24, 2017, the NPC approved the addition of Xi Jinping’s philosophy into the constitution. Placing the philosophy of a living Chinese ruler into the constitution has not occurred since Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. President Xi Jinping also neglected to name a successor to his post during the close of the 2017 legislative session, in a break with recent tradition.
China is expanding its regional military footprint
On March 5, the Chinese government announced that the military budget would increase by 8.1 percent in 2018, the largest such increase in three years. The Chinese navy conducted drills in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives in late January, which followed calls from Maldivian opposition for the Indian army to intervene in the island country’s political unrest. Beijing is also considering installing a military base in northeast Afghanistan and a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan, according to Western and Chinese media, although the government has denied such reports. China opened a small naval base in Djibouti in July 2017, and also recently increased the frequency of air patrols near Taiwan and disputed South China Sea islands, having commissioned both Russian and Chinese-made next-generation stealth fighter planes into service in early 2018.
Cyber monitoring on the rise
Instances of cyber-censorship have risen following the initial announcement of the potential amendments in February, with words and phrases related to disapproval of the changes being filtered out of Chinese social media. Recent cybersecurity laws requiring Chinese data to be restored domestically also raised concern from human rights groups in early 2018, the most notable instance of enforcement being Apple locating its cloud storage servers in the country.
Assessments & Forecast
President Xi’s political control, cyber monitoring to increase with passage of amendments
- The amendment package is widely expected to pass the vote on March 11, given that recent reshuffling has eliminated the influence of President Xi’s rivals at the upper echelons of government.The removal of age limitations suggests the continued influence of Wang Qishan, one of the president’s closest allies, who is 69. Wang initially led President Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the jailing of multiple political opponents, among others. The CPC will be able to continue removing potential political challenges to President Xi’s rule under Wang’s extended oversight.
- Online censorship and monitoring are expected to increase in the wake of the amendments. Apple’s storage of data in-country means that the Chinese government will enjoy access to users’ data that was previously unattainable, and given precedent, will use the information in order to initiate criminal proceedings against notable online dissent. Other tech companies are now more likely to accommodate policies they would have elsewhere opposed in order to gain access to the Chinese market after Apple’s acquiescence. FORECAST: Heavy scrutiny of public perceptions of the CPC will be enabled by new access granted by foreign businesses, especially as President Xi continues to dominate headlines in the wake of the announcement.
China to continue military expansion in pursuit of strategic interests, tensions with US will remain
- Chinese military adventurism is on the rise following the fall 2017 reshuffling in Beijing, which is directly related to President Xi’s more secure position. This type of posturing is therefore liable to continue as he continues to put an emphasis on the development of blue water naval capabilities. As China’s military expansion is liable to aggravate relations with regional antagonists, an increasingly militaristic posture towards Taiwan and the South China Sea will continue to raise tensions with the US, and recent naval exercises near the Maldives will do the same with India. However, Chinese military policy is by and large an extension of its foreign interests and not a desire to simply be more assertive. This is illustrated by the genuine need for security in places in strategic areas, such as Djibouti, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
- Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington will not drop significantly in the aftermath of the amendments, although minor provocations will continue periodically. President Trump’s recent reported statements indicate at least a private acceptance of President Xi’s power by the White House. Although the recent passage of pro-Taiwan legislation in the US Congress suggests that the two branches of government are not fully coordinated in their China posture, both are reticent to significantly escalate tensions given the considerable economic implications. Both countries will continue building and asserting their regional presence, mostly taking the form of maritime and aerial patrols near contested areas, as outright conflict remains highly unlikely.